We first meet 18-year-old narrator Mary Katherine Blackwood during one of her biweekly walks through the local town that sits under the shadow of her family’s Manderley-esque estate where she, her older sister Constance, and frail Uncle Julian live. They are the only three living in the “castle.” Once members of a large family, they’re all that’s left after the others were murdered with arsenic during dinner. The sugar on the blackberries wasn’t sugar. Luckily Constance never takes sugar, and Mary Katherine (aka Merricat) was sent to her room without dinner. Uncle Julian only took a bit.
The sisters are odd to say the least. Sure, Constance was the lead suspect for having poisoned the family, but their dynamics are also quite unusual; and a little bit haunting. They live a life of routine and simplicity. Gardening, taking delicious meals together (always crafted by suspected murderess Constance), sending Merricat into town for food and library books, and taking diligent care of poor Uncle Julian. Uncle Julian is weak and without much memory. Although he spends most days recalling the event and working on his book of its chronicling. He acts as a constant reminder of what happened to the Blackwoods.
Constance is an agoraphobe, or so Merricat says. She never wanders further than her garden. And Uncle Julian can barely move from his room to the table. This leaves Merricat as the only connection to the outside world. She ventures into town on Tuesdays and Fridays for supplies. With every step she narrates her hatred for the residents and their hatred for her and her family. This mutual disgust is never quite explained. It seems a product of otherness, fear of the unknown, and the tension between the haves and the have nots. Although I couldn’t help but distrust Merricat from the very beginning. She was so angry. She spends much of her day checking the various trinkets she had buried around the property to keep out the unwanted out. Merricat, her trusty black cat Jonas, and the hatred of the New England townspeople definitely felt like a Salem witchcraft analogy.
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.”
The charming existence the sisters and their uncle play at is disrupted when Cousin Charles arrives. A money-hungry “bastard.” He peruses Constance’s alliance but is cruel and disparaging toward Merricat and Uncle Julian. The orderly isolation of the Blackwood estate soon comes crashing down. In an epic way. I won’t give too much away, but after the climactic chaos Merricat finds a way to revert back to an altered state of their simple routines.
I didn’t find the Blackwood’s story scary necessarily. But it was disturbing. Merricat’s narration was suspicious. Constance and Uncle Julian seemed victims of Merricat’s manipulation. She kept them fearful and reveled in the oddities that kept them at a distance from everyone else. I read the events through a lens of an unreliable narrator and it made me question everything. Although Merricat describes their sisterly relationship as one of mutual love and understanding, it also felt like Merricat kept Constance trapped, afraid, and ultimately hidden away in the dark. The whole atmosphere felt claustrophobic and tense. But in a thrilling, well-written, atmospheric, page-turning way.
This was the first of Shirley Jackson’s books I’ve read, and I loved her writing! I’ll definitely be reading more of her work. There was so much to unpack. Themes of otherness, persecution, trust and fear, and the odd little characters like Jonas and the House cleverly weave in many layers of meaning. Although readable and quick, I still felt like there was so much to read into Jackson’s writing. It’s only 146 pages long, but full of metaphor, deeper themes, mystery, and complex characters. In a lot of ways I felt like We Have Always Lived in the Castle was reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, although shorter and set in a Salem-like town with Salem-like townspeople. I’d definitely recommend this one for fans of books like Rebecca, Flowers in the Attic, the Flavia de Luce series, or anything eerie set in New England. But I’d also just recommend this as a great fall read!